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Synthesis/Regeneration 33   (Winter 2004)

Thinking Politically

Deconstructing Electoral Politics for 2004

by Steve Martinot, San Francisco State University

The structural character of the US electoral system is one of winner-take-all, with single-delegate districts. Three things follow from this at the state and federal levels: issue-oriented representation is impossible, a third party effort is an exercise in futility, and the anti-democratic paradox in which this places electoral politics is irresolvable. Therefore, a local electoral strategy is necessary.

Why is representation impossible in single-delegate districts? Every district is composed of many different and often contradictory interests. There are class conflicts, community contradictions (e.g. between landlords and tenants), different cultural identities, ethnicities, racial groups and gender issues, ideologically oriented groups and religious institutions.

A single representative cannot represent them all. Indeed, a representative cannot represent any of them without arousing anxiety and controversy in others, and dissension in the district. The representative survives by separating him/herself from the district, adopting legislative projects that are fairly neutral with respect to the political needs of constituent groups or classes, and adopting strategies for re-election which depend on non-dissension in the district. These projects and strategies thus invert the structure of representation; they represent the representative’s relation to the district, rather than represent the district itself. Under the surface, they generally represent the influence of the “highest bidder” for the representative’s attention.

Issues and representation would become meaningful at the state and federal levels only through proportional representation.

As a result, legislatures have developed a culture of horse-trading support and influence on these projects, rather than one of dealing with issues that constituencies need to have addressed. This culture of horse-trading concretizes the structure of separation between the representatives as a group and the districts that elected them. This holds true for all state and federal legislatures. It is not an anomaly; it is the structural result of the single-delegate district system.

What representatives do offer is an ear to major constituents, and thus a conduit into certain governmental workings. This is the reason unions, for instance, will support a major party candidate even though s/he has an anti-labor record. The unions are not looking for representation of their interests, but an ear in government or party circles, through that support, in case they need special favors. It not only marks the undemocratic nature of the system, but is a symptom of the “apolitical” nature of the unions (as opposed to Europe, for instance).

Why are third parties futile?

Third parties are futile because of the “lesser-of- two-evils” paradigm that is the intimate expression of the winner-take-all electoral structure, and the two-party system that affects it.

Third parties emerge because people become dissatisfied with the kind of representation they are getting from major party representatives. A third party will always weaken the party it is closest to, which is the party with which it is dissatisfied, and which it wishes to realign. This is a futile project. Nothing will make the target party more representative, since it cannot represent in the first place.

It is also a futile project since the energy involved in building third party campaigns will be dissipated at election time through the “lesser-of-two-evils” paradigm. Most of the support for the third party will shift back to the major party it had thought to realign, so as not to strengthen the other of the major parties. This is an unavoidable aspect of the two-party system (which goes all the way back to its 19th century origins).

…a minor third party would have to become a majority party in order to make itself possible as a minor third party.

This shift not only condemns the third party effort to minimal effect and smallness of voting strength, but it condemns its organizers to eventual burn-out. There is little that can be done about this at the state and federal levels; it is a structural concomitant of the winner-take-all voting system. In the face of structural operations, issues do not matter; they are bumper stickers attached to the machinery.

Proportional representation as the answer

Issues and representation would become meaningful at the state and federal levels only through proportional representation. This would mean establishing multi-delegate districts, so that conflicting class, cultural, identity, ethnic, and ideological differences could appear, contest, and resolve their issues in the halls of government itself. Government could then function democratically, because it would become the place where issues got discussed and resolved. At present, the discussion of real issues is exiled from the halls of government to the realm of popular movements and street-level discussion by the single-delegate system.

When popular movements get big enough, they run candidates. The hard part becomes keeping a movement-elected representative responsive to the movement constituency after election. Election shunts the candidate into the horse-trading culture of legislatures. Proportional representation would both enable and necessitate responsibility to constituencies because it would change the ethos of party structure to the issue-orientation that third party efforts prioritize, while breaking the horse-trading culture of the legislatures. In other words, it would be the minimum condition for a third party to not be futile, i.e. for a third party politics to be possible.

Herein lies the ultimate problem. Proportional representation would require amendment of both state constitutions to facilitate multi-delegate districts. Neither major party would support such a contestation of their bipolar monopoly over the governance game. Thus, the idea of proportional representation, and the structural transformations necessary to facilitate it, must emerge from a third party effort. To be successful, the third party would have to become a majority party. In other words, a minor third party would have to become a majority party in order to make itself possible as a minor third party.


The only reason to run a candidate for president is to have him/her get arrested when s/he tries to get into the exclusive two-party presidential debates. This is something which Nader failed miserably to do in the last election. Running serious campaigns at the state level simply wastes money and the energy of good organizers.

Running in city and county elections, however, makes sense, not only to contest local political machines, or to take advantage of at-large positions to build a city or county-wide organization. The presence of Greens or other alternative thinkers or radicals on city councils is becoming more and more important. This appears to be the only level at which foreign policy and federal domestic policy issues can be contested politically. Since issues play no role at the state or federal level, city and county councils become primary arenas for addressing them. Recent experience has shown that city and county councils are willing to do this.

Running serious campaigns at the state level simply wastes money and the energy of good organizers.

Cities today are addressing the issue of becoming PATRIOT-Act-free zones, and contesting Homeland Security excessiveness. Cities have brought debate on the criminal assaults on Afghanistan and Iraq into the open. Sister-city projects have flourished and could expand. In the past, cities have contested INS policy by joining the Sanctuary movement. Non-cooperation with the federal government needs to be spread politically, since expression of such sentiment is effectively barred at the federal level. Therefore, in 2004, a strategy of winning seats on city and county councils should be advanced as much as possible. Providing a context for this might be the only excuse for a state or federal level campaign.

Steve Martinot, Ph.D., has worked as a machinist, truck driver and union organizer, and now teaches in Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. His most recent book is The Rule of Racialization (Temple University Press). He is also the translator of Albert Memmi’s book, Racism (University of Minnesota Press).

[14 dec 03]

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